NORMAN — A safe room in every school? In the aftermath of the May 20 tornado, many state officials were saying it couldn’t be done. Albert Ashwood wasn’t among them.
Ashwood is director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, a small state agency with a big responsibility: Since he took over in 1997, OEM has coordinated the state and federal response to 37 tornadoes, floods, wild fires, ice storms and other calamities deemed worthy of a presidential disaster declaration.
Now Ashwood is helping pick up the pieces from the deadly May 19, May 20 and May 31 tornadoes, which killed at least 46 people in Oklahoma. Seven were children at Moore’s Plaza Towers Elementary School, which had no safe room. It is one of hundreds of Oklahoma schools lacking adequate storm shelters.
In an interview with Oklahoma Watch’s Warren Vieth, Ashwood describes how Oklahoma could take the lead in developing a model program to put safe rooms in every school. He also explains why Oklahoma homeowners should take responsibility for their own tornado precautions. The interview has been edited and condensed.
A native of Muskogee and current resident of Chandler, Ashwood ended a newspaper career to become an OEM public information officer in 1988. He was appointed director by a Republican governor, reappointed by a Democrat, and appointed again by Republican Gov. Mary Fallin in 2011. He is the longest-serving state emergency management chief in the country.
Q: What particular lessons did we learn from this last round of storms?
A: We learn things from every disaster. Anytime you have an EF5 tornado, that puts you into the 1 percentile or 2 percentile of tornadoes. A lot of things that we’ve talked about — sheltering in place, making sure you have tornado precautions — sometimes don’t even apply to a storm that size.
Q: Are there any specific legislative or policy changes that need to be made?
A: After each one of these disasters, we have a series of after-action meetings and reports. We pull our partners in. We talk about what we did well, and what we could do better. We’re always going to come up with many, many new things. We’re still in the middle of that process.
Q: Have you made any specific recommendations to the governor?
A: We’re very interested in trying to develop a school safe-room program. The standard grants that we’ve used for safe rooms in the past are not going to put a safe room in every school very quickly.
Q: What would put safe rooms in every school quickly?
A: A new proposal that’s innovative, that’s something different, that hasn’t been seen anywhere in the nation that leverages not just grants from FEMA but grants from other federal agencies, private funds, state funds, perhaps bond issues by local school districts. We have to have something that leverages all of the various monies that we can find and makes it an incentive for the local school districts to do it.
Q: Would your agency take the lead?
A: I’m trying to. We would be the obvious choice right now. Disasters are basically what we do. We’ve had a couple of initial meetings. The federal government is 100 percent on board to try to make this happen … I’ve already talked to the governor about this proposal, and she’s interested in the discussion.
Q: Would this be limited to school shelters?
A: Strictly schools. We still want the individual to take the incentive to put a shelter in for themselves and their family. We have to be very careful with the individual program. We don’t want it to ever turn into a program where basically no one puts in a shelter unless the government funds it.
Q: Do you have a dollar figure in mind?
A: No, I don’t. Right now, we don’t have a baseline of what we’re missing.
We have between 1,700 and 1,800 school buildings in the state of Oklahoma. The school safe rooms that we have funded through the traditional FEMA grant program usually cost between $500,000 and $1 million. If you apply that figure to the number of school buildings, it would take a very long time to try to fund it just that way. And who would you fund first? How would you set priorities of putting a safe room in this school as opposed to that school? It’s impossible to do.
We have to have something broader and different and new and innovative that really gets all of the partners together and says this is a priority. It might be something that goes along with building codes. Many communities have an ordinance that requires a safe room in new school construction, but not every community does. Is that something we need to look at at the state level? We ought to discuss it.
Q: If there were 1,000 schools needing shelters, then you’d be talking about $500 million to $1 billion?
Q: Do you think that’s doable?
A: I think it’s doable.
Q: Should we require all new school buildings to have safe rooms?
A: That’s a good idea to start off with. We also have to have a plan that looks at the old ones as well.
We have to look at more than just the constructions of safe rooms. We have to look at our messaging. We have to look at the procedures that we’re telling our kids. Are they still viable?
Q: Doesn’t Oklahoma have a tradition of leaving these things to local school districts to sort out?
A: I don’t think anyone wants to tell local jurisdictions what they have to do. I’m talking about something that would be an incentive for districts to set this as a priority or a fundable item. It would never be 100 percent federal or state government saying, “We’re going to put a safe room in your school.” It would be, “Here’s an opportunity for you, should you decide to take it. You could match your bond money against what we’ve already got in place.”
Q: Should everybody in the state have some kind of residential shelter or safe room?
A: First and foremost, everybody in the state of Oklahoma should have a safety plan on what they’re going to do. We would love to see everyone have a safe room or a shelter, but that’s not practical. We understand that. There are many people who live in apartments. There are many people who live in mobile home parks and places that don’t have a safe room because they don’t own the land that they’re living on. We need to address all facets of that.
We’re not proponents of community shelters. We don’t want people to leave their home to go to a community shelter.
But we also realize that there are certain situations like commercial buildings, mobile home parks, where there needs to be a plan on where individual residents go.
Q: What do you have at your house?
A: I have a cellar in my garage. I put it in right after the ‘99 tornadoes. My wife said, “When are you going to buy our cellar? ... You’d look pretty stupid if you didn’t have one.” I said, “You’re right.” So we went out and got one.
Q: Do existing building codes have tough enough standards when it comes to tornadoes?
A: We need to look at that. A lot of people are reluctant about changing building codes. I fully understand why. You don’t want to increase the cost of construction to make it where people don’t want to do new construction. At the same time, I think there are some things we can look at … safety features … that make a lot of sense.
Mandating doesn’t really work. Telling people what they have to do is not nearly as good as getting them on board as part of the solution.
Q: Why hasn’t the state compiled an accurate inventory of schools with shelters before now?
A: That’s probably something that no one took the lead in. We probably should have done that. We are going to work now.
What we did in the past or didn’t do in the past probably was based on the last disasters that we had and where the damages were, which were usually in residential areas. Schools were very seldom hit. It’s human nature that we usually solve the last disaster.
Q: If someone wants to add a home shelter, does it make sense for them to try to participate in the SoonerSafe lottery program?
A: This is what I tell folks: It doesn’t hurt to apply. But that shouldn’t be the basis of your decision. We don’t want you to shoot for the rebate. To wait for the rebate is a bad idea.
Q: Why wasn’t the SoonerSafe program set up to channel money to the people who were most financially in need?
A: Because we don’t want to get into case management. We would have to hire people to do that means test. If you have to verify and validate, you’re going to end up spending more money in administration than you actually do in providing safe room rebates.
Q: Is there any critique you would like to make about the way the media handled these latest storms?
A: I had a talk on Sunday when we drove from El Reno with the governor. I suggested that we get a group together made up of meteorologists from Oklahoma City and Tulsa as well as the National Weather Service, and that we all sit down and come up with consistent messaging.
Q: Do you think some of the television commentary was a little hyperbolic?
A: I’m not going to point fingers. But we’re always very concerned when there’s a mixed message out there. We were very concerned about the people that were piled up when that tornado was going across I-35. The meteorologists we have in this state, they do an outstanding job. It’s difficult for me to say what they did wrong when they do so much right.
Q: What touched you most deeply during these last storms?
A: The loss of life. It always does.
I found out a long time ago that one person’s grief or concern is no greater than anyone else’s. My wife lost her sister in the Oklahoma City bombing.
But I always felt sorry for the people who lost someone that same day in a car wreck. Was their grief different? It just wasn’t publicized. Tragedy is tragedy.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state.